Food innovation districts are a powerful economic development tool

Food innovation districts provide a way of improving a community’s food infrastructure while creating a cooperative business environment for food-oriented businesses.

Imagine a place in your community where food-oriented businesses were concentrated in close proximity; a place where business cooperation and collaboration were encouraged and nurtured. Then imagine that this was further supported by the planning and economic development functions of local and regional governments.

And if one of the end results was increased access to fresh and local food, wouldn’t that be spectacular? Such a venture isn’t fiction and it’s possible for communities to achieve such a vision by developing a food innovation district, sometimes referred to as a food business district.

In February 2013, a useful tool called Food Innovation Districts; An Economic Gardening® Tool was released. It was developed as part of a collaborative project by Regional Food Solutions, LLC; the Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems; and the Northwest Michigan Council of Governments. The United States Department of Agriculture provided funding for the project with a Rural Business Enterprise Grant.

The document defines a food innovation district as: “A geographic concentration of food-oriented businesses, services, and community activities that local governments support through planning and economic development initiatives in order to promote a positive business environment, spur regional food system development, and increase access to local food.”

Activities in these districts can include: regional food hubs, business incubators, farm-to-table retail and restaurants, farmers markets, food festivals and other events, nutrition and cooking education, healthy food assistance, urban agriculture production, community kitchens, public spaces and other neighborhood uses.

Food innovation districts fill a food infrastructure gap, according to the toolkit:

“The purpose of food innovation districts is to support development of the business community, markets and infrastructure that healthy regional food systems need. Most food in the predominant food system moves from farm to plate through long and complex global supply chains. The standardization and large volumes such supply chains require do not accommodate the emerging local and regional food sector’s more diverse range of products and companies. This leaves the sector’s primarily small- and mid-size farms and food businesses without appropriate-scale storage, packaging, processing, and other facilities and services, known as ‘food system infrastructure.’ Food innovation districts help by bringing together complementary community and entrepreneurial activities for synergistic business and infrastructure development.”

The concept of food innovation districts is promoted by the Michigan Good Food Charter. One of its agenda priorities is to “establish food business districts to encourage food businesses to locate in the same area and to support their collaboration.”

The charter identifies three action steps that can be taken to advance food innovation districts:

  1. The state Legislature can spur food innovation district development with targeted incentives for them, such as tax abatements.
  2. State economic development officials can work with local governments to package existing and new programs and incentives in support of food innovation districts.
  3. Planning and development officials can provide land use guidance, such as a model overlay zoning district that can ensure land use compliance, encourage agri-food businesses to co-locate and provide a geographic focus to a community’s food business development efforts.

The charter also offers a way to advance food innovation districts in communities. It suggests “identifying likely spaces in your community for a food innovation district and recruiting local and state officials to help in their development.”

Michigan State University Extension has community food systems educators who can provide technical assistance and information about the establishment of food innovation districts. Use MSU Extension’s Find an Expert search function using the keywords, “Community Food.”

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